The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XV. Changes in the Language since Shakespeare’s Time

§ 7. Influx of foreign words

When a new term is required, rather than coin a word or burden an old one with a fresh meaning, English often borrows. The earliest known English contains loans; and, in modern times, borrowing has been extensively practised—so extensively, indeed, that, in recent dictionaries, only about one-fifth, or, at most, one-fourth, of the words can claim to be native. This, of course, is no test of their use; for, while scientific works, especially on chemistry, may be written in, perhaps, equal parts, foreign and native, the percentage of native words in works of literature may rise to 85 or 90, or even more. Taking, however, the vocabulary as it stands in a dictionary, we are justified in calling it much more composite than it ever was before. But, whatever be the elements composing our vocabulary, the mode in which they are employed is purely English. Foreign words soon cease to be treated as aliens: they are naturalised and become subject “to all the duties and liabilities of English words.”

In the seventeenth century, as is shown by writers like Sir Thomas Browne, there was a continual influx of Latin words, many of which, however, failed to establish themselves in the language. French influence, after 1660, checked Latin borrowing. This age was also a time of sifting of the vocabulary. A large number of words, chiefly Latin, borrowed since the renascence, did not survive the end of the seventeenth century, and most of the survivors are still with us. Borrowing from Latin and French has gone on to the present day. The war of 1914, like other wars, seems likely to add to our stock. Communiqué has secured a firm foothold in our newspapers not only for French official communications but, also, for British, German and Russian, and even South African. From French and from other languages of Europe we have borrowed words of commerce, of seafaring, of science, of art, of literature, of social life. War, exploration, trading, colonising and travelling have brought us words from America, Africa, Asia, Australia and the islands of the sea, while the Celtic tongues at home have added to the store. It is sometimes difficult to know the immediate source of a loan. A word may come to us from French, or it may be taken from Latin though it mimics the French mode. Words from distant lands may, for example, reach us through Italian or Spanish, through French or Dutch. English has received from French the Arabic houri, minaret, sofa and zero; the Turkish odalisque and kiosk; the Russian ukase; the Mexican jalap and occlot. From the Dutch came the Malay cockatoo; from the Portuguese the Persian sepoy and the East Indian teak; from Spanish the Peruvian puma. Italian handed on the Persian bazaar; an Indian vernacular gave us the Persian shawl. Gaelic words like cairn, ingle, sporran entered English from the Scottish dialect. Many classical Greek words have been transmitted by Latin or have assumed a Latin shape, as atmosphere, chrysalis, geology, monad, nausea, oasis, octopus, phase, phenomenon, phonetic, phosphorus, siphon, sporadic, thesaurus.

During the last three centuries, the sources from which English has borrowed most freely have been French, Latin, Greek and, to a less extent, Italian. The loans are of great variety, which, in a fragmentary way, appears in the following lists. From Latin we have such words as arena, axis, bacillus, cactus, circus, devastate, deviate, exert, facsimile, farrago, fortuitous, hallucination, incandescent, incipient, indigenous, indulge, joke, junction, larva, maximum, minimum, mollusca, nebula, noxious, nucleus, obtrude, odium, omnivorous, osseous, otiose, par, pendulum, permeate, preclude, puerile, quadruped, quota, ratio, reluctant, sinecure, spontaneous, tact, tandem, terrific, ulterior, vertigo, veto, viaduct; from Greek, autonomy, cacophonous, eczema, euphemism, exegesis, heterodox, idiomatic, kinetic, kudos, meteorology, monotony, nous, orthodox, ostracise, panoply, semantic, tonic, zymotic; from French, avalanche, badinage, bagatelle, barracks, bivouac, bronze, buccaneer, burlesque, chauffeur, chicane, cockade, cutlet, debouch, decamp, dragoon, echelon, embarrass, façade, gala, glacier, hangar, isolation, lampoon, levee, moraine, mystify, naïve, ogre, oxygen, parachute, parasol, parade, parvenu, picnic, piston, prude, quadrille, ration, ricochet, roué, rouge (cosmetic), routine, sash (of window), séance, solidarity, sobriquet, soufflé, souvenir, tableau, terrorism, trousseau, vaudeville, zouave; from Italian, balcony, bravura, crescendo, dado, dilettante, extravaganza, granite, grotto, incognito, influenza, lava, martello, oboe, opera, pianoforte, quartet, regatta, semolina, sirocco, solo, sonata, soprano, terracotta, ultramarine. From the other European tongues, the loans are far fewer though still important. The following exemplify what we owe to Dutch—commodore, easel, gas, Hottentot, hustle, kink, maulstick, morass, ogle, roster, skate (on ice), sketch, sloop, smack (ship), splice, taffrail, tattoo (of drum), trigger, yacht; to South African Dutch—commandeer, kraal, laager, spoor, sjambok, trek, veldt; to Spanish—castanet, cigar, flotilla, garrotte, guerrilla, junto, quadroon, regalia (cigar), sambo, sierra, siesta; to Portuguese—albatross, cobra, dodo, emu, joss, palaver, verandah, zebra; to German—feldspar, gneiss, kriegspiel, lager, mangel-wurzel—poodle, plunder, quartz, swindler, waltz, zeitgeist, zinc; to Russian—drosky, knout, mammoth, samovar, steppe; to Hungarian—shako, tokay (wine); to Polish—mazurka; to Icelandic—geyser; to Swedish—sloyd; to Norwegian—fiord, ski; to Welsh—cromlech, eisteddfod; to Gaelic—claymore, ptarmigan, pibroch; to Irish—banshee, Fenian, shillelagh, Tory; to Breton—menhir.

When we come to Asia, we naturally find that our vocabulary has borrowed largely from the Indian languages—chintz, coolie, juggernaut, jungle, jute, khaki, loot, pyjamas, pundit, raj, shampoo, sikh, sirdar, thug, tomtom, zenana. We have from Persian—baksheesh, durmacr; from Turkish—bosh, effendi, jackal, kismet, pasha; from Arabic—allah, ameer, emir, fellah, harem, salaam, simoom, zareba; from Malay—amuck, compound (enclosure), guttapercha, trepang, upas; from Japanese—jinricksha; from Javanese—bantam; from Chinese—bohea, kotow, pekoe, souchong, tea. With few exceptions, of which kosher may be one, words of Hebrew origin in common English use have come through other tongues.

American languages have given us moccasin, musquash, skunk, squaw, tapir, toboggan, tomahawk, totem, wigwam; African—chimpanzee, gnu, morocco, quagga; Australasian and Polynesian—atoll, boomerang, dingo, kangaroo, taboo, tattoo (skin-marking).

Many of these loans have interesting associations. The Polynesian tattoo was first made known to Englishmen in the third quarter of the eighteenth century by Captain Cook; the German plunder reminds us of the devastating Thirty Years’ war and of Prince Rupert’s marauders in England during the civil war; words like easel and sketch, smack and yacht recall the painters and the sailors of Holland, as terracotta and ultramarine, opera and soprano recall the artists and singers of Italy. Tomahawk goes back to the early English settlements near the Red Indians; terrorism, first recorded in English in 1795, is an offspring of the French “Reign of Terror,” 1793–4; and the Spanish guerrilla, in a despatch of Wellington (1809), is a legacy from the Peninsular war. But these few instances must suffice.

The readiness with which English borrows from foreign tongues or builds words out of foreign materials, explains the existence of such pairs as mind, mental; mouth, oral; spring, vernal; moon, lunar; son, filial; man, human; coal, carbonic; milk, lacteal; where the noun is native, the adjective foreign. This is sometimes termed a defect, on the ground that the words, while connected in sense, are not outwardly linked by form. Custom, however, obviates any disadvantage the defect may have. Besides, in many cases, native adjectives exist by the side of the foreign, as manly, human; fatherly, paternal; watery, aqueous; kingly, royal. Similar pairs of nouns are greatness, magnitude; length, longitude; height, altitude. By means of the double forms, we express differences of meaning, or vary the phraseology according to circumstances. This advantage will naturally have little weight with those who wish foreign words expelled, whether useful or not, who, like William Barnes, advocate demsterhood, folkdom, folkwain, pushwainling, cudchewsome for criticism, democracy, omnibus, perambulator, ruminating.